And that's true even without the drugs, you think?
Yes, no question. I don't think people necessarily understand the constant, extraordinary demands that this sport makes. I mean, you are basically killing yourself every minute that you're out there. And many times what that leads to is a flat tire, or someone gives you an elbow and bumps you off the road in the last corner, and the break goes on without you and you can't do anything about it—over and over again, and you just have to understand that's the way these things unwind, and your day will come—or not.
But back to the question about drugs—you've sort of led me to believe you didn't entirely disapprove of them.
Had I had Lance Armstrong's body, and had I had the possibilities he had—that is to say, if I were able to somehow magically find myself in the pro peloton—I have no confidence that I would have refused the blandishments to which he eventually succumbed. Besides, as you know, you're talking to a father who's a vitamin freak.
Right, you believe in better living through chemistry.
Keep in mind that our lives are fundamentally different in part because of the understanding of the human body that modern science has made available to us. A good deal of the technology that's outlawed in sport and the subject of great scorn is the same technology that allows us to save AIDS patients from wasting, that allows us to bring many, many disabilities and disease states back from the brink to something like full functioning. I myself have been taking supplemental testosterone for medical reasons for 15 years, with no ill effects. These things are powerful weapons that mankind has developed for good.
There are some interesting alternative strategies. For instance, there's something called an altitude tent—a hyperbaric chamber. If you sleep with an oxygen content in the air typical of higher altitude, the body's response is to begin to generate more red blood cells. It's everybody's response to altitude, and you can do it just by taking the hours that you sleep and reducing the oxygen content. Not the pressure, just the oxygen content of the air. So many years ago many of the Scandinavian cross-country teams began to train while domiciled in whole houses that had been altered to reproduce this state of affairs.
You don't want to, by the way, just move to Colorado, because it turns out that the full-boogie adaptation to altitude is not particularly favorable, because your blood pH changes in such a way as to make power production decline. The ideal is to sleep at altitude and train at sea level. In fact, our good friend Barb Buchan [a severely brain-damaged Paralympic cycling medalist] bought one of these tents, and it had the effect of dramatically reducing her seizures. Then, when she was at the Olympics, she was not allowed to use it, and she had a seizure right before the race.
In her case, part of what was interesting to me was that that tent really worked. She could pretty much march her hematocrit right up to whatever level she wanted. This is a woman, and women's hematocrit levels are usually far lower than those of a man.
Are there side effects to this kind of doping as there are to things like amphetamines or steroids?
Yes. EPO in particular has been implicated in 20 or 30 or 40 deaths in amateur racing. Red blood cells are enormously bigger than any other cells in the blood, and when you increase them the blood becomes sludgy and the heart has to work much harder. I had a master's student who was genetically disposed to overproduce red blood cells, and he had to give blood from time to time to reduce the load on his heart.
Can you imagine a set of doping rules that would make more sense?
I'm not so sure I disagree with the rules that we have. I think what's happening is probably a profound reorientation of the ancient culture of the sport. The sport itself is not that ancient, it's only, what, 150 years old—the bicycle was only invented 200 years ago. You could take the point of view, and I guess I do, that this is now going to be the future of the sport. I found it very interesting to hear that what was decisive as far as Armstrong was concerned is what's called a biological passport. What this means is that you're not testing the athlete for levels of any particular substance; you're instead creating a normative measurement over time by taking blood samples over the course of a year or longer, out of training, and you get a profile of what his blood should look like. And then if, upon the racing season's arrival, you have a test which is wildly discrepant, that's the basis for a disqualification.
There's also evidence that the culture is changing. There's a new team that Jonathan Vaughters has put together—a kid from Colorado, actually, I first heard his name as a junior and he raced briefly in Europe. He is now the chief honcho in a team that is predicated around weekly testing of every single member of the team. These guys are squeaky clean, and their appeal to the organizers of the big races is they are above reproach. And this is what the Tour wants. And so [the team has] been rising very quickly through the ranks. The riders are very committed to this and it's been surprisingly successful. So this is the future.
It seemed to me, watching the interview, that if he were being honest, Lance would have said, "Look, this is what everybody did, I just did what everybody did"—but he wouldn't have gotten any sympathy for that, he would have seemed to be making excuses or playing the victim. So he'd been coached not to explain things in that way, even if that was the truth.
I think you're right, it would have certainly not exculpated him—he wouldn't have gotten any sympathy. But the fact that it's true is something I know and I wish he would have been able to point out. Because I'm also aware of the fact that he's exposing and explaining himself to an audience that is relatively naive [about cycling].
So is he a victim, in your view? Is he a scapegoat? Or does he deserve what he's getting? You said it saddens you that he'll be remembered mainly as a disgrace—does he deserve better than that?
Well, first of all, the court of public opinion is nothing if not fickle. There was an article I saw that listed all the public figures who fell into disgrace only to rehabilitate themselves somewhat later. I think Armstrong is going to lose in the court of public opinion not because he doped so much as because he was such a bully. People are right to be really, really offended by the fact that he ruined so many careers, the fact that he sued so many people he knew were telling the truth. He's got a long ways to go before he begins to make amends for some of that. But there again, we are talking about one of the great bike racers of all time. The guy doesn't have to be liked or even particularly nice to be a great racer.